Opportunities of e-supervision for masters and PhD students

Yesterday we exchanged lots of impressions and thoughts about how the struggles of supervising a large number of students could be addressed. Sometimes faculty members are forced to supervise a large number of students, which can pose serious challenges in performing accurate and quality supervision or, in exchange, put too much pressure on that staff that will consequently have lesser time for other academic activities (e.g. research).

Besides the obvious but not easy and quick solution of increasing the number of accredited supervisors, we brainstormed about other possible solutions. In the age of digital communications, the possibility to carry on something in the line of e-supervision came to our minds quite quickly.

There are at least four ways that online-based or -enhanced supervision can come handy.

  1. Setting up a virtual campus with a virtual secretary‘s office can shift some workload from the supervisor to the administrative staff or, even better, to the 24×7 service that all the information published on the secretary’s office can provide.
  2. The virtual campus can actually also feature a virtual classroom. While it is true that most thesis supervision tasks are very personal and refer to a particular thesis, it is also true that many explanations, indications, suggestions, etc. about the making of the thesis (choosing a methodology, writing the hypotheses and research questions, citing properly, etc.) are common to almost any thesis. Group supervision based on a virtual classroom can for sure avoid repetitions and even promote some proactiveness from the students.
  3. If meeting in the same time and space is no more an obligation – because the Internet has no boundaries of time or space – complementary online mentoring or co-supervision can be enabled so that more people can help in the supervision. The online mentor, for instance, needs not be a doctor and they may carry out some administrative or accompanying tasks that are not related to the core of the research activity.
  4. Last, and surely more daring, there’s P2P supervision. How many problems are shared between a cohort of students? How many core literature do they share? How many similar methodological approaches do they have in common? The idea of P2P supervision is to do one’s research openly, making it public on a personal learning environment or a personal research portal, so that other colleagues can have a look at it, comment it, provide advice, suggest readings and methodologies, etc.

Of course there are many odds and ends that need being addressed in online mentoring. But the tools and, more important, the paradigm, are there to be explored for their usefulness.

Kenyatta University – a 21st century university

Family photo

Family photo

During the first day of our study visit to Kenyatta University we had the opportunity to get to know vibrant campuses and the ambitious future vision of this institution. Under the leadership of the Vice-chancellor Olive Mugenda, Kenyatta University (KU) is putting into practice a visionary growth and expansion programme, aspiring to become in short the best ranked university in Kenya and being situated among the best universities on the African continent.

KU experimented, like many other higher education institutions all over the world, a huge growth in their student population. Attending around 15.000 students in 2006, KU has today more than 60.000 students. Also at postgraduate level, the student numbers have being growing much over the last years. Unfortunately, the number of faculty did not grow on the same pace. Furthermore, there’s still quite a big percentage of faculty that does not have a PhD. One of the biggest challenges is therefore to upgrade faculty, facilitating to do their PhDs.

To respond to the increasing academic needs, KU invested and keeps investing in infrastructure on all its campuses. We visited some of the impressive buildings that have been constructed over the last few years like, for example, the Post-Modern Library, the Amphitheatre or the Business Innovation and Incubation Center and saw many other buildings currently under construction like the new School or Law of the Graduate School, just to mention a few.

Photo of the New School of Law, Kenyatta University

New School of Law, Kenyatta University

Photo of the Post-modern Library, Kenyatta University

Post-modern Library, Kenyatta University

In order to be able to invest in this ambitious future, KU’s strategy is to rely less and less on scarce government funding, diversifying their income sources. One source, for example, is the recently created Foundation of KU with its head office in the United States, formed by alumni of the institution. The planned Uni City which will offer retail stores, a convention center, hotels, etc. will be another source for income.

KU is also innovating at management level, creating directorates that depend directly from the Vice-chancellor. These structures help to move faster, putting into practice new projects without interfering the academic activity.

During the visits we learned that there exist already different initiatives at KU to make use of ICT for teaching and research. At the City Campus, for instance, some programmes use e-supervision through email in order to attend students from outside Nairobi. At the School of Law, Facebook and an adapted platform are used to keep in touch with the students. Matching the needs of supervising more and more students, some of who live far away from the university, with these incipient online tools showed us that there could be a good basis for introducing e-supervision in postgraduate studies.

Arrival at Kenyatta University

Snapshot of the PLEPhD team getting ready for the kick-off meeting.

The PLE-PhD Catalan team getting ready for the kick-off meeting.

The Catalan delegation, formed by Ismael Peña and Irene Manresa of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and me, Nadja Gmelch from the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP) has arrived at Kenyatta University. After a warm welcome by David Njoroge at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, we travelled through Nairobi City to the Campus of Kenyatta University and installed ourselves at the residence of the Conference Center of KU (KUCC).

After some initial difficulties with the Internet connection, (how do you install a proxy server?), we are online and ready for an intensive study week here at KU. The programme the KU team prepared for us looks very interesting and we are very much looking forward to getting to know all the people involved in this project on KU side. Besides getting to know each other and learning about the doctoral programmes at KU as well as their virtual campus, e-library and e-research activities, the main goal of this week is to get in touch with interested PhD-students and professors who want to create their own PLEDS.
The PLE-PhD adventure begins, come and join us here at KU during the coming days!

The PLE-PhD project is launched

The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia, UOC), Kenyatta University and the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP) would like to welcome you to the PLEDS-project, and kindly encourage you to actively take part in this project with your knowledge and experience.

The PLE-PhD project will allow us to experiment, within an international context, the use of ICT for learning at PhD level, and how these technological tools can help us to raise research visibility and improve the processes of research supervision.

On this site, we will be providing all the relevant information about the project and its partners, related news that will be happening, advances in our testing, together with documentation and information of interest about Personal Learning Environments.

Let us take this opportunity to make a call to the international community involved in Doctoral Education to actively participate in this blog with comments and contributing whatever information, experience and knowledge that can make this project even more enriching for us all.

Welcome and keep in touch…